A film review by Craig J. Koban May 16, 2011


2011, R, 86 mins.


Tim: Ed Helms / Dean: John C. Reilly / Joan: .Anne Heche / Macy: Sigourney Weaver / Ronald: Isiah Whitlock / Bill: Stephen Root / Orin: Kurtwood Smith

Directed by Miguel Arteta / Written by Phil Johnston.

CEDAR RAPIDS is a new comedy about an innocent and naïve man-child insurance salesman named Tim Lippie (Ed Helms) that has seemingly never been out of his tiny town of Brown Valley...that is until his boss sends him to a big regional convention in - gasp! - Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Life certainly is mundane and painfully ordinary for Tim at home, but when he arrives in the “big” city for his convention, it’s almost as if the entire world has exponentially opened up for him.  He’s introduced to pleasures from his other fellow conventioneers that were just not possible back in Brown Valley, like alcohol, drugs, wild parties, and one night stands.  To Tim, Cedar Valley is like freakin’ Vegas. 

The film certainly traverses on some exceedingly familiar territory and involves a relative who’s who of stock characters throughout its barely 90 minute running time.  Yet, what makes the film feel so oddly unique and original is its offbeat likeability and the manner it adeptly balances f-bomb riddled raunch with an undercurrent of sweetness.  

CEDAR RAPIDS deserves it’s R-rating for its potty mouthed shenanigans throughout, but the film is so frequently hilarious for how it centers all of its lewdness within its quietly honest and keenly observant portrayal of its main character.  In many ways, it reminded me considerably of THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and many of the best films of the Judd Apatow cannon: It’s one thing for a filmmaker to unleash petty gross-out gags and ear-rattling profanity on screen, but it takes a more delicate and astute hand to add dimension and create a rooting interest in the film’s personas.  It’s kind of amazing, but CEDAR RAPIDS is a comedy that manages to contain copious amounts of filthy gutter talk, booze and drug intake, and sexual trysts as well as people we relate to and empathize with.

Tim – as played in a standout comedic performance by Ed Helms – is certainly hard to hate.  He is mild mannered, politely spoken, dresses everyday like he’s about to attend church, and has a flat and parted hairline that usually is attributed to infants.  He loves his job as an insurance salesman, perhaps a bit too much, as he often sees it as a noble profession that “saves" people’s lives.  Yet, do not let his Clark Kentian façade fool you: he ain’t another 40-year-old virgin.  He actually is having a sexual fling with a much older woman, his own 7th Grade teacher to be precise, played briefly, but with gusto, by Sigourney Weaver.   His former teacher is only in this relationship for the sex, but Tim seems to idealistically believe that they are a couple bound for marriage.  He is so earnest, nice, and endearingly dense that it’s easy to see why she has a hard time explaining otherwise to him. 

Tim's life is thrown a bit upside down when his boss (Stephen Root) decides, as mentioned, that he needs him to represent his firm for an upcoming Cedar Rapids convention?  Why?  It blatantly appears that Tim’s boss’ first choice died during an autoerotic asphyxiation incident, but Tim is so obtuse that he believes that the man he is replacing died via a tragic accident.  Nonetheless, Tim’s mission at the convention is to secure a widely sought after prestigious award that would all but make his boss’ company stand out as a real winner, so Tim begins to feel some real pressure before he even boards the plane.  Oh, even boarding the plane is stressful, seeing as Tim has never been on one.

When he arrives in Cedar Rapids – an outwardly normal looking town to just about anyone that has engaged in modest travel – Tim is absolutely elated at everything he comes in contact with.  He has a wide-eyed childlike glee when he comes to the hotel, checks out all of its amenities, and is astonished by just about anything he walks by.  His roommates for the convention are the hard working and honorable Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the blabber-mouthed, slobby, and sleazy Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly, who knows how to play roles like this in his sleep).  Tim also meets an attractive female salesman named Joan (Anne Heche) that he begins to fall for, even though she’s married and he’s “pre-engaged” to his schoolteacher sex buddy.  Tim also becomes friendly with Bree (Alia Shawkat) and, despite all beyond-obvious cues, he does not seem in on the fact that she’s a whore.  Things get really, really complicated for Tim when he begins to partake in the sinful and once forbidden pleasures of liquor, drugs of many forms, and overall free-wheeling revelry, but he also gets a crude wake-up call to the types of ruthless minded sharks that populate his field. 

The overall performances are so nuanced and well laid out that you quickly forget that the actors are essentially playing types.  I liked Anne Heche playing her independent minded, forthright, and go-getter role with a level of sass and spontaneity I have not seen from the actress in awhile.  John C. Reilly delivers on his role’s requisite level of being a high partying middle-aged frat boy that wields his throw-caution-to-the-wind insolence with a badge of honor.  Perhaps even more deceptively hilarious is Isiah Whitlock Jr., who hysterically reminds his fellow salesman of his oftentimes-fixated appreciation for “HBO’s THE WIRE.”  The in-gag is that, yes, Whitlock is in THE WIRE.   

Ed Helms, though, thoroughly owns this comedy, and his brief stint on TV’s THE DAILY SHOW, THE OFFICE, and a movie supporting role in THE HANGOVER only highlighted how good a performer he is at playing up to his character's’ discomfort and awkwardness alongside their innocence and everyman ordinariness.  What he does in CEDAR RAPIDS is to take a hapless schmuck role that could have been reduced to a broad and unfunny caricature and instead infuses in him a sense of aw-shucks decency, inescapable wonder, docile graciousness, and an oftentimes-sidesplitting gullibility.  Yet, Tim is never so annoyingly and head-smackingly naïve that you want to hit him.  Rather, he’s delectably and disarmingly dim-witted and sweetly honor bound, so much so that his new friends around him – and the audience – really begin to like and root for him.  Tim is likeable not just because he’s a total social philistine to the world around him, but perhaps more because he’s just a good man that wants to do good. 

CEDAR RAPIDS was directed by Miguel Artera who made, for my money, one of last year’s most criminally overlooked and side-splitting comedies in YOUTH IN REVOLT.  Both that Michael Cera comedy and this one have the same level of observance for how to generate big laughs out of situations involving empathetically well drawn, run of the mill characters with hearts of gold that get involved in transgressive situations that often spiral way out of their control.  Both YOUTH IN  REVOLT and CEDAR RAPIDS are so ultimately winning and charming because they have their fingers squarely on the pulses of their buttoned-downed and deeply sincere personas, which often allows for their comedy to be both hilarious and heartfelt.  I laughed out loud several times throughout CEDAR RAPIDS, but not because I thought that Tim was a dweeb beyond redemption, but maybe more because I felt for the poor sap and the predicaments he finds himself in, both willingly and involuntarily.  

The film also wisely preaches an unwavering truth: any town, no matter how dull and trivial, can become a partying Mecca of impulsive ribaldry, especially for those that really, really don’t get out much. 

  H O M E